The Dalai Lama, Tibet as Shangri-La, and Keeping Secrets from the Public

People pose to celebrate Serfs’ Emancipation Day at the square in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, capital of southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, March 28, 2021. Photo: Xinhua

By Rupen Savoulian

How would you react if a man in his eighties kissed a small boy on the lips, and then asked if he could suck the boy’s tongue? Reactions of disgust and outrage would follow. That is exactly what happened last month – and the man in question happens to be the widely celebrated Dalai Lama.

The office of the Dalai Lama issued a formal apology last month, after video of the incident went viral. I will not link to any video of the incident, but you may find details in the news media if you wish.

The Dalai Lama made these inappropriate advances to the boy at a public event at the headquarters of the Tibetan anti-Beijing opposition in India. The Tibetan government in exile has tried to rationalise the behaviour as an ancient cultural tradition. However, independent journalist Caitlin Johnstone has reflected the underlying sentiment of the public regarding the Dalai Lama in her article here. What is particularly noteworthy about this incident is that the adult audience did nothing to remonstrate or stop the inappropriate contact.

Free Tibet rallying cry

The demand for a free Tibet acquired enormous traction among Hollywood celebrities (think Richard Gere, Steven Seagal, Sharon Stone, among others) and has reached the corridors of power in the United States, as well as in the UK, and to a smaller extent in Australia. The Dalai Lama personifies the avuncular, spiritually motivated peaceful nature of a Free Tibet government in exile up against the Communist Chinese. However, if we dig a bit deeper, the Tibetan cause has a darker, politically motivated history and agenda.

The purpose of this article is not to advocate for the Beijing government. Let’s acquire a more realistic and sceptical perspective for why this movement to free Tibet has become a cause célèbre, but the equally valid national struggles of other oppressed minorities, such as that of the Palestinians, are ignored. The claim of a free Tibet is predicated on a fictional and romanticised version of pre-Communist Tibet. Rule by the Buddhist lamas was anything but a peaceful Shangri-La for the majority of Tibetans.

Prior to the 1950s, Tibet was very much a feudal, backward society, reminiscent of medieval Europe. Most of the arable land was in the hands of a feudal aristocracy, and the majority of the population were serfs tied to working that land. The lamas of the Buddhist order formed a tiny and wealthy aristocracy, keeping the population down through violence and superstition. Mutilations and torture of rebellious serfs was common, and the sexual abuse of children was frequent among the lama-landholding class.

Buddhism in the west has acquired a kind of cache in contrast to the monotheistic religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have long histories beset by sectarian violence, internecine wars and economic exploitation. Buddhism appears to be quite separate from all that – at least on the surface. However, that rosy picture of nonviolent Buddhism does not correspond to the reality of Tibet under the lamas as a repressive and patriarchal feudal society. Theocratic despotism is not unique to Europe or the Middle East.

Buddhism did walk hand in hand with economic exploitation and subjugation of women. Education of serfs, particularly of girls, was forbidden; only the wealthy lamas and their children could acquire literacy. The monasteries, located on large landholdings, had their own private prisons for torturing runaway serfs and rebellious peasants.

Prior to the 1949 Communist revolution, the imperialist powers recognised Tibet as part of China; the latter having a long history intertwined with the former. Indeed, the selection and installation of the 14th Dalai Lama in Lhasa had to be approved by the then nationalist government in Beijing.

In 1951, Chinese troops did occupy Tibet; and the Maoist government in Beijing pursued a very moderate, gradualist policy at first. No attempt was made to expropriate the ultra-wealthy landlords; in fact, Beijing asked for the Dalai Lama’s cooperation. The lama theocracy did not face an immediate threat of extermination. Social and economic changes proceeded cautiously at this time.

From the mid-1950s onwards, with the assistance of the CIA, the Tibetan lamas formed an anti-communist contra guerrilla army, and underground network to resist the Chinese military. Numerous scholars have described the formation and activities of this Tibetan contra network.

This covert operation intended to push Chinese control out of Tibet and restore that nation’s status as a target of imperialist intrigues. From 1956 onwards, the Lamaist commando activities increased, until there was a large uprising in 1959. Beijing responded with a full-scale invasion, and the Tibetan theocracy relocated to India, from where they continued their attacks on China.

That covert operation finally ended in the 1970s, but it served to poison relations between Washington and Beijing. The Dalai Lama and his collection of Tibetan exiles continued their relationship with the US intelligence community. His Holiness receives favourable media coverage, gives talks to international audiences on spirituality and philosophical wisdom. Whether his philosophical output is valid remains to be seen. He still serves as a weapon in the hands of Washington to prod Beijing.

When governmental secrecy is used as a cover for criminal or predatory activities and foreign policies, it is time to remove that secrecy and shine a spotlight on government conduct. We all know the reality of Chinese rule in Tibet. Before we start hoisting the Free Tibet flag or changing our social media avatars to Tibet-friendly images, let’s be sure about what exactly we are supporting.

The above article was originally published on April 17, 2023 in the Antipodean Atheist

The article below was originally published on September 24, 1996, in Green Left Weekly, issue #248

The Dalai Lama’s Hidden Past

By Norm Dixon

Most solidarity and environmental groups supporting the Tibetan people’s cause have not questioned the Dalai Lama’s role in Tibetan history or addressed what it would mean for the Tibetan people if the Dalai Lama and his coterie returned to power.

A 1995 document distributed by the Dalai Lama’s Office of Tibet aggressively states that “China tries to justify its occupation and repressive rule of Tibet by pretending that it ‘liberated’ Tibetan society from ‘medieval feudal serfdom’ and ‘slavery’. Beijing trots out this myth to counter every international pressure to review its repressive policies in Tibet.” It then coyly concedes: “Traditional Tibetan society was by no means perfect … However, it was not as bad as China would have us believe.”

Was this a myth? Tibet’s Buddhist monastic nobility controlled all land on behalf of the “gods”. They monopolised the country’s wealth by exacting tribute and labour services from peasants and herders. This system was similar to how the medieval Catholic Church exploited peasants in feudal Europe.

Tibetan peasants and herders had little personal freedom. Without the permission of the priests, or lamas, they could not do anything. They were considered appendages to the monastery. The peasantry lived in dire poverty while enormous wealth accumulated in the monasteries and in the Dalai Lama’s palace in Lhasa.

In 1956 the Dalai Lama, fearing that the Chinese government would soon move on Lhasa, issued an appeal for gold and jewels to construct another throne for himself. This, he argued, would help rid Tibet of “bad omens”. One hundred and twenty tons were collected. When the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, he was preceded by more than 60 tons of treasure.

Romantic notions about the “peaceful” and “harmonious” nature of Tibetan Buddhist monastic life should be tested against reality. The Lithang Monastery in eastern Tibet was where a major rebellion against Chinese rule erupted in 1956. Beijing tried to levy taxes on its trade and wealth. The monastery housed 5000 monks and operated 113 “satellite” monasteries, all supported by the labour of the peasants.

Chris Mullin, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1975, described Lithang’s monks as “not monks in the Western sense … many were involved in private trade; some carried guns and spent much of their time violently feuding with rival monasteries. One former citizen describes Lithang as ‘like the Wild West’.”

The Tibetan “government” in Lhasa was composed of lamas selected for their religious piety. At the head of this theocracy was the Dalai Lama. The concepts democracy, human rights or universal education were unknown.

The Dalai Lama and the majority of the elite agreed to give away Tibet’s de facto independence in 1950 once they were assured by Beijing their exploitative system would be maintained. Nine years later, only when they felt their privileges were threatened, did they revolt. Suddenly the words “democracy” and “human rights” entered the vocabulary of the government-in-exile, operating out of Dharamsala in India ever since.

Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama’s commitment to democracy seems weak. An Office of Tibet document claims “soon after His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India, he re-established the Tibetan Government in exile, based on modern democratic principles”. Yet it took more than 30 years for an Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies to be directly elected from among the 130,000 exiles. Of 46 assembly members, only 30 are elected. The other 16 are appointed by religious authorities or directly by the Dalai Lama.

All assembly decisions must be approved by the Dalai Lama, whose sole claim to the status of head of state is that he has been selected by the gods. The separation of church and state is yet to be recognised by the Dalai Lama as a “modern democratic principle”.

The right-wing nature of the Dalai Lama and the government-in-exile was further exposed by its relationship with the US CIA. The Dalai Lama concealed the CIA’s role in the 1959 uprising until 1975.

Between 1956 and 1972 the CIA armed and trained Tibetan guerrillas. The Dalai Lama’s brothers acted as intermediaries. Before the 1959 uprising, the CIA parachuted arms and trained guerrillas into eastern Tibet. The Dalai Lama maintained radio contact with the CIA during his 1959 escape to India.

Even the Dalai Lama’s commitment to allowing the Tibetan people a genuine act of self-determination is debatable. Without consultation with the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama openly abandoned his movement’s demand for independence in 1987. This shift was first communicated to Beijing secretly in 1984. The Dalai Lama’s proposals now amount to calling for negotiations with Beijing to allow him and his exiled government to resume administrative power in an “autonomous”, albeit larger, Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s call for international pressure on Beijing seeks only to achieve this.

There are indications that a younger generation of exiled Tibetans is now questioning the traditional leadership. In Dharamsala, the New Internationalist reported recently, young Tibetans have criticised the abandonment of the demand for independence and the Dalai Lama’s rejection of armed struggle. They openly question the influence of religion, saying it holds back the struggle. Some have received death threats for challenging the old guard. Several recently-arrived refugees were elected to the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies.

The Tibetan people deserve the right to national self-determination. However, supporting their struggle should not mean that we uncritically support the self-proclaimed leadership of the Dalai Lama and his compromised “government-in-exile”. Their commitment to human rights, democracy and support for genuine self-determination can only be judged from their actions and their willingness to tell the truth.

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